A Changing Societal Ethic is Behind Recent Tragic Events
Why did it happen? Who is to blame? How can we prevent a re-occurrence? These are questions that haunt me in the aftermath of the murder of five police officers and two civilians in Dallas just a couple of weeks ago and last Sunday when three police were lured to their death in Baton Rouge. And, they have haunted me for many months since Michael Brown was shot dead followed by Tamar Rice, Freddie Gray, and, most recently, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
To me, this is not a black issue or a white issue. It’s an American issue and recent violent events reflect a sea change in societal ethics in the U.S. The truth is both sides of the issue fail to see what has happened in America over the past decade or so. The first step to make things better is to acknowledge the change and that has yet to occur. More important, we need leadership and we need it now so that America does not revert to a 'wild, wild west' mentality.
The high profile murders of several black youths have occurred for two reasons. First, a blatant loss of respect for authority figures has built up over many years. It’s not just black youth. Young Americans in general don’t respect police officers, public servants, and, I can say with first-hand knowledge, teachers in the same way as years ago. Given the loss of respect, police officers and others in positions of authority do not always garner cooperation by virtue of the fact they hold a position of authority.
Today, when a police officer asks someone to get out of a car, lie on the ground, put their hands up, and so on, the command is not adhered to – at least right away. This triggers mistrust on the part of the officer barking out the order. The officer may focus first and foremost on protecting him or herself. The officer may think that if this person won’t listen to my command, then I need to adopt a defensive posture. One thing leads to another. Words are uttered that add fuel to the fire. Tragedy results.
The common denominator in each of these incidents is the absence of mutual respect and understanding. Police do not know what to do when someone they stop exhibits an uncooperative attitude born of distrust. The result is the senseless murder of innocent people. It occurs because police are not well trained in dealing with one-on-one civil disobedience or the psychology of resistance circa the 21st century.
The murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge also reflect a loss of respect for those who put their lives on the line every day to protect public safety. Those who are disaffected and dubious of police intentions use a few terrible incidents to condemn all police who, by and large, are trying to protect communities from bad actors.
On the other hand, we need to acknowledge that a lack of trust exists in certain segments of society and is perpetuated by ongoing incidents of police misjudging the intentions of black youth. They are not trying to menace the officer. They are not a direct threat to the safety of the police officer – at least in most cases. The conflict between police and these segments of society occurs, at least in part, because of past incidents and is fueled when the police stop someone who then exhibits the same quality of behavior that has infected society for way too long, which is to adopt an “attitude” of superiority and unabashed disgust at being stopped and questioned for doing nothing at all. Before you know it, words are uttered that make a bad situation worse. In my day we called it to “give lip.”
Digging deeper, young people are used to seeing gratuitous violence on television and in the movies. They read posts on social media about bad behavior by police officers. They see videos on Instagram and You Tube and these become their “books of learning,” not the textbooks in the classroom which, by the way, eschew the existence of a common societal ethic. They listen to their friends who may have been racially profiled. Like a tsunami coming on shore, a level of distrust builds up, innocent black youth adopt a defensive posture, and any hope of cooperation is lost.
What can be done about it? I’m not optimistic anything will change in the near future. I don’t think calling a meeting of police chiefs and other community leaders will make a difference. We have to stop talking past each other. The only hope I see is for each community to get black youth and other minorities together with the police at the same time and openly discuss their feelings on these issues and adopt concrete steps that both sides agree to. Then, and only then, might we reverse a disturbing trend, restore law and order to our streets, and stop the senseless violence.
But before that can happen, we need our leaders, starting with President Obama, to say unequivocally that enough is enough! We need it to be said with strong emotion and not the perfunctory way the President addressed these issues last Sunday. He needs to say with conviction that this is not what America is about. This is a time not only for leadership but for moral leadership.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz on July 19, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.workplaceethicsadvice.com.